Torah Reflections: January 15 – 21, 2017

Sh’mot

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

Beyond Fear and Morality

This week we open the Book of Exodus. Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt as Joseph, then Viceroy, invited them to. After that generation dies out we are told, “the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” [Ex. 1:7] But then: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” [Ex.1:8] Pharaoh, out of fear of the Hebrews being “much too numerous” [Ex. 1:9] began to enslave and oppress them, and ordered the Israelite midwives to kill every newborn boy. But Pharaoh’s genocidal attempt was thwarted by the midwives themselves who, in the first recorded case of civil disobedience in history, “did not do as the king of Egypt had told them.” [Ex. 1:17] Why did the midwives risk their lives to save the children? The Torah answers: “Because [they] feared God.” [Ex. 1:21]

This stated motivation for the midwives to act counter to Pharaoh’s edict is problematic, and deserves deeper exploration. Torah is subject to multitude of interpretations and this passage is no exception. One level of interpretation reads this statement as presuming that the midwives acted out of fear of Divine punishment. They thought Pharaoh’s potential retribution to be of lesser consequence to them than that of God. Their actions, though life-saving, were ultimately self-serving; choosing the lesser of two evils. Not only does this understanding diminish the midwives, it also paints a portrait of a God only able to elicit fidelity from His people through fear and coercion; a God not much better than Pharaoh himself. But a commentary in the Etz Hayim Torah interprets the verse at another level:

The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe…. They were willing to risk punishment at the hand of Pharaoh rather than betray their allegiance to God. [Etz Hayim, p.320]

We are reminded, here, that essential to the practice of Judaism is upholding principles of justice and morality. The “fear of God” is equated with the fear of breaking one’s allegiance to a deity demanding such ethical behavior. And though this might be a step above the aforementioned fear of direct Divine retribution, it still leaves the midwives’ feat to be selfishly motivated by their fear of breaking from their religious standards, of betraying their loyalty, and not by saving lives. At the same time, while this interpretation helps us see God as the moral compass of Creation (rather than a vengeful narcissist,) God’s sword of justice is still what compels one’s faithfulness.

The Hebrew offers a third layer of understanding. Narrowly translated as “Fear of God,” the Torah’s expression “Yirat Elohim” has far broader implications. Elohim is the name of God in the plural. It represents the world of plurality, of duality; God in Its finite expression as Creation itself. It is the Divine Being in Its immanent aspect, manifesting as every being, and every form. Yirah, for its part, is often translated as “awe” instead of “fear.” Yirat Elohim represents the sense of awe one experiences in the realization that everything is an expression of God, God manifest. The midwives felt with every child they helped birth a profound sense of awe, unfathomable love, and deep reverence for each new life as a manifestation of the One Life itself. It wasn’t any ego fear-based motivation that compelled them to act. Theirs wasn’t even a moral act. Action was simply a natural extension of their awareness, their wakefulness, their love. It knew no reason, needed no explanation. It just was.

On this critical day in our nation’s history, may we be inspired by the Hebrew midwives of Egypt, and source our response—when called to action in the days, weeks and years to be—not from a place of fear, but, rather, from a place of awe, from a place of fierce, unwavering love.

Torah Reflections – December 28, 2015 – January 3, 2015

Vayechi

Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

Awakening to a Deeper Trust                                

Trust is a central tenet in our tradition. Judaism is not a creedal religion, by which I mean that no acceptance of a specific theological system, no adoption of dogma, is required in order to be Jewish. Instead, Judaism asks for trust. And this notion goes back to biblical times. Take Abraham for example. God appears to him and immediately orders him around, promising him land and numerous descendants, in exchange for his trust. God never asks Abraham — or any other hero in Torah for that matter — to believe in Him. God is. His being is assumed, a fact never discussed or questioned. It is Abraham’s trust, not faith, which is tested throughout his life.

With trusting comes a different kind of worldview, a different set of expectations from life in general and our reason for being in particular. Many of us have come to believe — and our modern western capitalist societies make sure to continuously reinforce this belief — that our main life purpose is the pursuit of happiness. Judaism holds, however, that mankind’s main job is not to seek happiness, but rather, to strive to make ourselves clear channels of God’s manifestation; or, in other words, we are to remember that we are the sacred instruments of God’s work. Engaging in the pursuit of individual happiness leads us to a dualistic understanding of existence, to the false conviction that we are in control of this, our discrete life; and to the suffering that comes with holding that only good things ought to happen to good people. As God’s servants we understand and accept the shadow which inevitably comes with the light, walk humbly with the knowledge that control is but painful illusion and, paradoxically, are better able to surrender to what is, aware that everything is but the manifestation of the One.

This trust of what is as God manifesting is what the Hebrew calls emunah, usually mistakenly translated as “faith.” Emunah shares the same root with the word amen which means “it is so.” Emunah is about trusting the it-is-so-ness of the Divine manifesting moment to moment. Ours is a spiritual path to wake up to the ego-free instruments we already are through which Divine energies flow unobstructed. In Torah Joseph becomes, in his adult years, a man of deep trust. He sees himself as a servant of God, a channel for God. For him the challenges of life become opportunities for growth and a way to refine his character. He lives in the moment with trust, sharing the gifts he has been blessed with, sharing who he is in all circumstances. As his story comes to a close and he has finally been reconciled with his long-estranged brothers, he says to them:

Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive a numerous people. Now, therefore, have no fear — I will provide for you and your little ones. [Gen. 50:20-21]

Few of us lead a life as Joseph does. Yet we learn from the selflessness, the capacity for forgiveness, the level of trust and Divine sense of purpose beyond ego that Joseph displays throughout his life in Egypt. And there is a Joseph already in all of us yearning to express the sacred dimensions of our being with complete emunah, with unconditional trust. And so, perhaps this week’s Torah portion calls us to live our lives sourced in the sacred dimensions of being as embodied by Joseph, to remember ourselves as sacred channels for the One Spirit that we are, that we have always been.

Torah Reflections – December 7-13, 2014

Vayeishev

Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

You Make a Difference                               

Reuben is a character that is mostly overlooked in these weeks’ Torah portions dominated by the stories of Jacob and Joseph. Reuben is Jacob’s firstborn son, from his first wife, Leah. Technically, he is the one in line to inherit the Abrahamic promise from his father, and the one through which the lineage must continue. Only technically, though. Jacob’s marriage to Leah was the result of a trick his father-in-law played on him, forcing him to marry his firstborn daughter before allowing him to marry Rachel, his second born, whom Jacob loved and desired. Leah is the unloved unwanted first wife of Jacob; Rachel is the love of his life. Rachel’s firstborn son is Joseph; and — as we learn from the beginning of this week’s Torah portion — Jacob “loved Joseph best of all his sons… and he made him a coat of many colors. When his brothers saw that he was the one their father loved, more than any of his brothers, they hated him…” [Gen. 37:3-4]

Reuben’s relationship to Joseph was most complicated. On the one hand Joseph was Reuben’s direct rival when it came to family preeminence, which gave him an added reason to hate him. On the other hand, as the eldest son, Reuben was responsible to his father for Joseph’s and all the brothers’ well-being. This complex relationship comes to a head in this week’s Torah portion as the brothers, fueled by their hatred and jealousy, resolve to kill Joseph. “But when Reuben heard it, he saved him from their hands saying: ‘Let us not take his life… Shed no blood! Cast him into this pit, [here] in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand against him’-intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.” [Gen. 37:21-22] At first, the brothers obey. But no sooner than Reuben’s back is turned, do they sell Joseph to a passing caravan of slave dealers on its way down to Egypt. “When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes” as a sign of deep grieving and, believing that Joseph was dead, cried out: “The boy is gone; where am I to go?” [Gen.37:29-30]

Reuben’s despair at the thought of Joseph’s death is deeply moving, especially knowing that he had the most to benefit from his step-brother’s disappearance. But that doesn’t even enter Reuben’s consciousness. His single focus was that his standing up for what was right — saving Joseph’s life — ended in failure. He wasn’t able to prevail and create change. Joseph had died. The reader knows, however, that Reuben’s intervention had immeasurable impact. Indeed, according to the story, saving Joseph changes the course of history.

Perhaps this is a metaphor for all of us. So many of us are working to impact change, to make a difference. Seldom do we see the results of our hard work and are able to celebrate our victories. Often we despair at how little change we actually witness with our own eyes. Perhaps we, like Reuben, are attached to a certain outcome, and are often blind to seeing results when change manifests itself in ways we don’t expect or recognize. Perhaps what we set in motion ends up bearing fruit only after we have already moved on. We made a difference, yet we don’t know we have. But this not knowing need never prevent us from doing what is right; and neither should our being met with resistance, anger or even contempt.

What we learn from Reuben, ultimately, is that “right action” is always ego-less. Had he listened to his ego he would have sided with his brothers and killed Joseph. But when our ego is set aside, the place from which we act is always a place of compassion and care. Operating from this place, the fullest integrity of our being is allowed to express. We let go of our need to control the outcome, and make our actions a true offering of selfless love. And that, more than anything else, is what truly makes a difference.

Torah Reflections: December 11 – December 17, 2011

Parashah (portion) Vayeishev – The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Joseph
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

Meet Joseph. Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son, to whom he gave the famous coat of many colors. Though we meet him at seventeen as our Torah portion opens, Joseph is described as a lad, a youth. Why? Rashi (11th century French Rabbi) tells us: “He would do things associated with youth; he would fix his hair, he would groom his eyes, so that he should look attractive.” In other words Joseph was an extremely self-centered teenager who had yet to grow beyond the narcissistic stage of his evolution. Joseph sought to outshine his eleven siblings not only by creating this peacockish self-image, but also by putting them down in front of his father every opportunity he had. Early in the portion we read that “Joseph would bring malicious reports about them to his father.” (Gen. 37:2) Even the way he shares his prophetic dreams–seeing his brothers, father and mother bowing down to him–betrays his desire to feel superior, his need to humiliate others in order to elevate himself. Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Joseph was that his brothers sold him into slavery.
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